Editor: Throughout my academic career I have formally studied poverty, homelessness, and their complex roots to better understand the needs of this deeply understood and marginalized population. I have had the pleasure of providing necessary services to our unhoused neighbors, in both community and institutional settings. So, it is no surprise how deeply angered I am by the continuous acts of aggression a community leader has taken against people who are unhoused.
In December, Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman pretended to be homeless for a week “to find out why the problem of homelessness was growing and what he, as a mayor, could do to address it” (‘Homeless Mike’, Shaun Boyd, CBS4). After his week as ‘Homeless Mike’ he came to two conclusions: the reason there are people experiencing homelessness is to “drug addiction” and because of this they do not deserve ‘handouts’. He has used this experience to fuel his campaign against homelessness by proposing an urban camping ban, similar to the 2019 Denver ordinance. On every level this is ethically and morally disgusting and severely harmful on an individual and societal level. Individuals who are homeless experience trauma all day every day that they are unhoused due to operating in a constant state of survival and lack of stability, whether substance use contributes to that or not. Coffman did not need to “go undercover” to find out what the leading causes of homelessness are, he just needed to google it. Here’s a sneak preview, Mike, substance use isn’t even in the top 3 (National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty).
I understand that as a political leader your views may differ from those of your constituents, but when your city has a growing issue, you do not blame the victims. You also do not pull a highly politicized stunt where you take anecdotal evidence and use it to generalize and harm an extremely vulnerable community. This issue will not simply disappear, nor will it be solved by criminalizing people who are homeless. As a political leader you should use expert opinions, peer-reviewed research, and community input to tackle issues within your community. The mayor of Aurora could have saved himself from this ill-fated political stunt by looking to the service providers in the community, as well as within his own government entity — Aurora Homeless Project Management. He used none of the resources available to him and instead looked to his own uneducated insights.
Any individual wishing to gain insight from people experiencing homelessness need not be an imposter but be genuinely interested and concerned for these individuals and respectful of their experiences. What Mayor Mike does not understand is that at no point did he truly experience homelessness. He has a home, a career, supports, and security, which he is aware of and therefore could not possibly understand the trauma experienced by individuals who do not have the same resources. Experimenting with urban camping is not equivalent to searching for a safe space to sleep because their previous encampment got swept by police that day. There is no knowing when an individual experiencing homelessness will eat, sleep inside, or be completely safe and therefore you cannot duplicate the emotional toll it takes on an individual when there are no real dangers to your existence.
Political leadership should not only be empathetic to things they have personally experienced but also to situations they have not experienced. As a political leader you are representing your constituents and the entire scope of the demographics that reside in your district, housed or not.
— Ashley Martin via [email protected]